When Blake Mycoskie headed for Argentina in 2006, he was thinking about only one thing: polo. An avid horseman, Mycoskie had traveled there for an intense four-week training camp. His plan was to learn more about the sport and improve his game before kicking back to enjoy a well-deserved vacation from the several businesses he’d launched since college.
The then-29-year-old entrepreneur accomplished all those things — and also found a calling: providing shoes to children in need. “I was on a vacation. I wasn’t looking to be a philanthropist,” says the Arlington, Texas, native. “I didn’t choose shoes as much as they chose me.”
While Mycoskie was kicking back in South America, he met a group of children and some volunteers who were working with them. The children didn’t have shoes, which Mycoskie learned from the volunteers is a big problem: Shoes protect feet from injuries and infections, helping prevent serious illnesses like hookworm and podoconiosis (a horrible disease that causes the legs and lower body to swell uncontrollably).
Just as important, children in many parts of the world are not permitted to attend school without shoes, a requirement that inadvertently sentences kids whose families can’t afford footwear to a lifetime of poverty.
Mycoskie was compelled to help solve this problem, but he wasn’t interested in creating another nonprofit to just collect donations and redistribute them. Instead, he ponied up $40,000 to create his own shoe company. TOMS (short for “tomorrow’s”) Shoes began manufacturing a version of the traditional Argentine alpargata that Mycoskie had noticed locals wearing while on his vacation. And for every pair he sold, Mycoskie gave away a pair to an Argentinian child in need.
It’s an innovative business model that some initially find hard to understand, Mycoskie notes: “People say to me all the time, ‘If you really cared about these kids, why wouldn’t you just start a nonprofit and give everything away? Why do you have to be a for-profit company?’”
The for-profit model, he explains, is more sustainable. “With a nonprofit, I could have taken that same amount of capital and bought and distributed shoes for kids who needed them. That would have allowed me to distribute about 40,000 pairs of shoes,” he notes. “In that scenario, 100 percent of the money I had to give would have been depleted and I would have had to raise more. Instead, I used that exact same amount of capital — not a penny more — to start TOMS, and in September we just gave away our millionth pair of shoes. As a for-profit company, we’ve given 25 times more shoes away. You can’t argue with the math.”
The company doesn’t do any traditional advertising, but relies instead on word of mouth and the persuasive power of the TOMS buy-one-give-one model. The company also sponsors an annual event, One Day Without Shoes, scheduled next year for April 5. On that day, TOMS asks everyone to go about their day barefoot to raise awareness about the impact shoes can have on a child’s life.
The results have been impressive. The company is thriving, and in the four short years of its existence, it has been honored with the prestigious People’s Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum at the Smithsonian Institute and, in 2009, received Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Award for Corporate Excellence.
Today, Mycoskie operates manufacturing facilities in Argentina, China and Ethiopia. And his shoes, which retail for about $45 a pair, can regularly be seen in fashion hot spots and on the Red Carpet.
Mycoskie, 34, is no stranger to the business world. As a student at Southern Methodist University, he founded a campus laundry service that eventually served seven campuses in the Southwest and employed 40 people. He later launched a billboard company and an online driver’s education service.
Even in the early days, Mycoskie felt an urge to give back, but he didn’t figure he’d get the chance to offer much of significance until he was older. “I always planned to make as much money as I possibly could so that I could spend the latter years of my life giving it all away,” says Mycoskie, who earns what’s been described as a “comfortable” living as Chief Shoe Giver at TOMS. “I always wanted giving to be a huge part of my life. I just thought it was something I’d be able to do when I was 60, not 30.”
Mycoskie, whose pre-TOMS national profile got a big boost when he competed in CBS’s The Amazing Race with his sister Paige, spends a good chunk of his time traveling around the country speaking about the TOMS mission. When he has free time, he enjoys being home (he lives on a sailboat in Marina del Rey) and pursuing a diverse array of pastimes.
“It’s almost a joke,” he says. “People are like, ‘Man, for someone who is all over the world giving and building a business, you have more hobbies than anyone I’ve ever met!’ I guess I don’t sit still a lot.” Mycoskie’s list of interests includes horses and polo, sailing, golfing, reading, and snowboarding. And he recently learned to surf, which he says has “kept me in the best shape this year.”
He’s also a very conscious eater, sticking mainly to nuts, vegetables and fruits, and limiting his meat intake. “I have a pretty simple diet,” he explains. “I eat very little processed stuff.”
His main focus right now is TOMS and the fight against podoconiosis in Ethiopia. “That disease really just robs people of their lives,” he says. “It breaks my heart.”
Above all, he’s eager to continue traveling the world and giving out shoes. “When you’re with a child and you’re putting a pair of shoes on his or her feet, it makes you realize how much we all have to gain by giving to those who truly need it.”